Day 4: What is your favorite perverse behavioral incentive?

Okay, looks like this one’s falling kind of flat (also it’s Sunday and I’m sure the indie hipsters have much more important things to do) so let me explain my thinking behind the question.

It started as a gag on day 3, re behavioral incentives. It’s a continuation on the indie game design thing that, in some schools of design, really drills deep into the economics of play. I think few folks actually know what the term means — yes, it’s an actual economics term — so this may be helpful (from the Goog):

“A perverse incentive is an incentive that has an unintended and undesirable result which is contrary to the interests of the incentive makers. Perverse incentives are a type of negative unintended consequence.”

the Goog

And this, for me, gets back to a point I made yesterday about these designs rooted in economics and/or experiments with economies: if your players aren’t actually incentivized by what you’re trying to pay them, you get squirrelly outcomes.

Here’s an example that has always stuck in my head. Onoes, it’s another Burning Wheel story!

I have a player who loves, loves Burning Wheel. Oh my god, he can’t get enough of it. But his motives for playing never quite lined up with everyone else at the table.

He’s very good at building artha-generating setups with his characters. Super-quick Artha 101 for the non-BW players out there: there are three kinds of currency that give you various I-win type benefits in play (reroll dice, add dice to the pool, double the pool size) and you earn them in various ways (getting yourself in trouble, pursuing Beliefs, finding yourself in conflict between various flagged character values). The cycle is pretty clear, right? You do these things that create good new fictional context and probably get you in trouble now so that you earn Artha to spend on succeeding later.

Okay, so my player. He’s really good at engineering thoughtful and profitable Artha schemes for his character. He’s one of my best. And he doesn’t spend Artha. Not ever. Because he’s not incentivized by success. My best speculation is that he uses Artha as a score-keeper, a validation that he’s correctly executing the game. He has literally no investment at all in his character’s success, and total investment in earning the most Artha.

The Burning Wheel community is uh…enthusiastic, sometimes overly so, about fixing “problems” like this. Get into more scripted conflicts! Offer more catastrophic failure consequences! Of course the community, made up of True Believers, are totally coming at this the wrong way. They have no idea how to even think about the game the way this player does, so they can’t see that all the usual fixes are pointless.

He’s taken the complicate-now-and-succeed-later cycle and turned it into complicate-now-and-Scrooge-McDuck-later, which isn’t a cycle at all. It even impacts other players, who feel the constant economic pressure and, I think, sometimes resent that Scrooge McDuck can just check out of the cycle whenever he feels like it.

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19 thoughts on “Day 4: What is your favorite perverse behavioral incentive?”

  1. Sorry, Paul Beakley I’m trying to make sure I get this, it hurts…
    He doesn’t feel a need to win rolls? He just straight up rolls, no artha added, no matter the odds/stakes.

  2. Paul Beakley Epiphanies are a reward, and I figure he’s looking to tack up rewards.

    But I take it he just wants to rack up as much artha as possible, and then look proudly upon his artha stack. Okey-doke.

  3. It might help to visualize how I represent artha at the table: green, white and silver glass beads (fate, persona, deeds). Tactile and cool and clicky.

    Maybe if I got him one of those Fidget Boxes off Kickstarter that’d soak up whatever twitchiness is feeding into that. Dunno! That’s deep black magic. I’ll just let him continue spooling out terrific new scenes and conflicts.

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